When The Simple Life debuted in December 2003, the show captured early-20s BFFs Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie the way society wanted to see them: privileged party girls worn raw and hair frizzed by the hardships of how Us Regular Folk live.
The joke, it seems, was on all of us. Hilton leaned in, playing the part and doubling down on what would become her “that’s hot” signature quote. In fact, a producer on the show’s first season revealed Paris herself penned the now-infamous “What’s WalMart?” line. The heiress and business tycoon (as of today, her perfume company has released at least 20 scents) is a lot of things – small dog aficionado, adaptable (she recently ditched her signature platinum tresses to assert #BrunettesHaveFunToo), self aware, arguable inventor of the selfie, etc. – but there are two things she’s not: stupid and impervious to the American criminal justice system.
Today marks 10 years since Hilton’s release from Century Regional Detention Facility. Officers arrested Hilton for violating her probation in an alcohol-related reckless driving case. In May of 2007, the court sentenced her to 45 days, for which she voluntarily started serving a few days early – directly after the 2007 MTV Awards. “I’m scared,” she told red carpet reporters before both the ceremony and her sentence. During the awards show, Sarah Silverman attempted and bombed a plainly mean joke at Hilton’s expense. As the camera panned over to the young woman immediately destined to serve time to catch her reaction, Hilton’s face stays unchanged but unamused. Despite surviving countless rounds as easy tabloid target as well as surviving a legit rodeo, this was a big deal.
Hilton helmed a new kind of celebrity. In the three years since her private sex tape leaked and brought the socialite to national recognition status – from June 2004 to June 2007 – she successfully took an objectively not-great situation and capitalized the hell out of it. Not that she needed the money or attention, but because she is such an expert at finessing it. Paris Hilton is the O.G. reality TV star, not just in her role on The Simple Life or even gossip rag roles. She is “famous for being famous,” but it goes deeper than that.
After just half her sentence passed, on June 7th, 2007, Paris wriggled out of her isolated cell for a number of nebulous “psychological” reasons, her sentence transferring to house arrest. That was short-lived, too, as a judge quickly ordered her to finish out the remaining 18 days at L.A.’s Downtown Correctional Treatment Center.
All this almost exactly a year after her debut single “Stars Are Blind” reigned pop charts as tenable song of the summer. If anyone else had dropped that shamelessly auto-tuned, radio catering number, it’s very unlikely the track wouldn’t have done so well. Again, of course, it was widely criticized, even in real-time. But damn if it didn’t make her another yacht-full of cash.
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Hilton most clearly blazed a trail for former assistant Kim Kardashian West’s immense rise in pop culture royalty. The Kardashian name has eclipsed her former boss’s glory, following a similar sex-tape-turned-profitable-empire-path but dodging the party girl trope (Kim says she doesn’t even really drink alcohol. It’s unlikely she’d stumble upon cocaine and claim it’s probably gum).
But less than a month after The Simple Life premiered, another “famous for being famous” celebrity rolled out a new program. Then-real estate mogul, now-POTUS Donald Trump starred in and steered the elimination-based series The Apprentice, a show during which he proved a prowess for elementary yet cutting catchphrases like “you‘re fired.” At the time, the phrase seemed fangless enough; when delivered at a podium in the midst of an official campaign for the U.S. presidency, it was asinine, empty and possibly terrifying. There was no way anybody could imagine the same man would lead the most powerful nation in the world a decade later.
Like Hilton, not many took Trump seriously. Both were dismissed as air-headed non-threats – again, famous for being famous, respective wildly successful business models ignored. Trump’s “loser” refrain quietly percolated in exasperated conservatives’ vernacular, similar to Hilton’s “sexy baby voice” throughout her lavish Hollywood circle as well as impressionable preteen girls. Both celebrities existed as an obvious gag while absorbing and leveraging major influence; this dichotomy allowed both to quietly take over the world in a way that’s simultaneously mysterious and very public. While everyone was busy cracking jokes at their expense, no one noticed the power they had accumulated and the associated influence. Hilton and the man she voted for in the 2016 election, played dumb while hiding ridiculously calculated, smart moves to grow their corresponding powers.